Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Equipment - Atomic Balm

With Winter breathing its last gasps and temperatures rising accordingly, it's getting to that "in between" time. The time when you don't know if you should wear tights or knickers or, the best debate of all, shorts.

Debating on shorts is the best because there are two things that mark the beginning of the nice season. One is the first ride in shorts. The other is the first ride in shorts where you feel warm air rushing past your legs.

I cheated and did both of these out in California, but with the bitterly cold March temperatures (mostly anyway) I've pretty much forgotten what a nice, sunny, 75 degree day feels like, so I'm back on track. No more weather jet-lag, so to speak.

Yesterday it was 57 degrees, sunny, and not too windy. I felt a bit chilly just hanging around the apartment because I hadn't eaten my normal tons and tons of food. So when it was time to go for a spin, I started that ubiquitous debate. Tights or knickers. Knickers or shorts.

Knickers won because it seemed too warm for my super-heavy-duty tights. But when I went to put them on, I realized my bag of 55 degree weather gear (knickers, a thin baselayer, some other stuff I can't remember) was missing.

So shorts it was.

This meant I had to put on virtual knickers. The Balm.

Ah, the Balm.

I discovered the Balm in college in the late 80s. When I first used it, my legs burned so bad that I didn't use it for a long, long time. Then, at some chilly race where I didn't bring my tights, I used the Balm. And haven't stopped.

The current Balm is a weak replacement for the original stuff. The first tub I owned had red lettering, was considered Medium or Mild strength, and had 0.5% turpentine.


As I learned from my dad, turpentine is a solvent. A solvent is really good at dissolving something and letting it through permeable barriers.

In the case of the red lettered Atomic Balm, the turpentine would allow the rest of the Balm to penetrate deep into your skin, bringing all its various heating powers literally deeper into your body.

I guess at some point someone decided it wasn't good to have people rubbing turpentine into their skin so the ingredient disappeared. It didn't help that once the stuff was under your skin, you literally could not clean it off. My legs would burn for the whole day after a Balm race.

Alas my tub eventually went empty and I had to buy another one. No turpentine, to my disappointment. I actually contemplated adding in turpentine, can you believe that?

Actually, you probably can.

Anyway, no turpentine meant putting more on. I bought the Medium strength stuff, blue lettering. The Balm doesn't remove the tub's lettering like the turpentine version did.

I did buy the Hot level, but it's like jalapenos (once I eat one I lose my sense of taste) - too hot to be comfortable, no benefit. Medium Balm is like how much wasabi I use with my sushi - tons - but I can still taste other things after I eat it. Comfy hot, not painfully so.

To use the Balm, you should have the following:
1. Atomic Balm, Medium. Mild for sensitive skin folks.
2. Access to a bathroom with running water and lots of soap. Barring this, a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a couple towels. I can go through a small bottle of rubbing alcohol in 3 or 4 Balm sessions, and I use at least one towel for each one.
3. The ability to endure feeling like you just got rug burns all over your legs (this is after the ride, not before).
4. DO NOT SHAVE YOUR LEGS in the 12-24 hours prior to applying Balm, unless you are a total masochist.

The procedure for Balm usage follows below.

First, put your shorts and socks on. You don't want errant Balm ending up on sensitive parts of your body. I once made the mistake of putting on shorts, then Balm, then going outside and thinking I want knickers. I went back inside, took the shorts off, and put the knickers on.

In the process I slid the knickers along my Balmed legs. I finished dressing before the heat hit. At that moment I hated all the bib stuff I was wearing - it was like someone lit my privates on fire.

Needless to say I was late for the ride.

So, first, put your shorts on. Socks too, just in case.

Balm is like thick Vaseline that makes you hot. Note shaved legs - hairy legs and Balm don't mix. I used three servings of the above amount for my two legs. One for each, then one split between them "just in case"

Then, after you open the tub and take in the beautiful aroma, scoop some Balm out. I get two finger's worth for each leg. Since the stuff doesn't come off too easily, I try not to use both hands. My left hand, in this case, is the Balm hand. This is because I can't take pictures with my left hand.

Smear on leg. It looks like and feels like automotive axle grease. About as tenacious as well. But a lot hotter.

Next, smear the stuff on your leg. Focus on the front. You want to put as little as possible behind your knee simply because when you pedal, it naturally concentrates the Balm into the crevice created when you bend your knee. If you slather on the Balm back there it feels like someone is running a machete across that area after 15 minutes of pedaling. And feels like that until you wipe it off.

Second leg. Note rolled down socks. This is about when your eyes water a little.

Once you get some Balm on your legs, start spreading it around. I focus on getting good, even coverage. I try and get the stuff on my knees, shins, calves, thighs. I put less on my hamstrings since they're out of the wind and get kind of hot kind of quickly.

As an added benefit, Balm will moisturize dry skin nicely.

Even coverage. And an instant tan, kind of.

Once you finish putting the stuff on, roll down the top of your shorts, roll up your socks (if applicable), and make sure your legs have an even heat sensation. Any cold spots will be extremely cold later. Just skip the back of your knees - a very, very light coating there.

Wash your hands with soap and water or rub them clean with rubbing alcohol and a towel. Now you're ready to either put on the rest of your gear or, if you already have (usually I have), you can go for a ride.

In this case, I wore the following, bottom up, for a 55-57 degree sunny and not windy day:


SS jersey (base)
LS thick jersey (outer)
windvest, unzipped (my shoulders were a bit cool)
winter level head cover
vented helmet (not taped - I probably could have used the taped helmet with a cap but I wanted to cover my ears)
Long finger windproof gloves

I protect my core temperature and my head. My legs I let fend for themselves - if my core is hot, my legs will be able to draw off some of that heat energy. Instead of using my head to cool off my body, I make my legs do it. This way I have less material constricting my legs, the muscles and tendons are still warm, and, well, it looks very pro.

As soon as I started out I swapped for short finger gloves. I didn't need to conserve that much core heat.

Once you finish, you need to wipe off the Balm using rubbing alcohol or scrub the stuff off in the shower.

If you are using a shower, even luke warm water will burn like molten lava when it hits your Balm'ed legs. Work through it (because you know it's not burning you) and get the stuff off. Your legs will stay pleasantly hot but you'll lose the molten lava feeling. When your legs feel sort of clean (it'll feel a bit Vaseline-y) you're done.

Now you have to wait for 3-4 hours for your legs to suddenly cool. In my case, yesterday, it took 3 hours. Sitting at dinner, suddenly my legs cooled down, kind of like they suddenly exhaled and said "Enough is enough."

Note: this stuff smells somethin' powerful. So if you are in an area where things smell nice or should smell nice, put the Balm on somewhere else. The smell lingers for a day or so, more if it's in an enclosed place.

A final warning. Do not discuss this product in an airport. I'd refer to it as "heat rub".

"Dude, I'm at the security check point so I can't talk long. No, I checked my bike gear. I just have my shoes, Balm, laptop, and my SRM head. I can't wait until.. hey, what are you doing?? Why are you pointing a gun at me?? What do you mean shut up?? I didn't say BOMB, I said Ball-M!! Hey dude, I gotta go, I'll call you back later."

Okay, if you do, just be aware of any potential consequences.


Anonymous said...

Great description - I'd always wondered about this stuff and have never used it. Gotta admit that your description doesn't encourage me to try %^)

Anonymous said...

Ummm... I understand wanting to *feel warm on the bike. But does this stuff actually protect your knees from the de-lubricating effects of windchill?

Disclaimer: I'm a california wussy so this would be a mid-winter replacement for knee warmers :D

Aki said...

SOC - there's a tub in my gear back at the races.

anon - I understand your concern. I'm extremely paranoid about protecting my tendons, especially my knees and my Achilles. I figure that if the blood is pouring into the open vessels in my legs, they'll be flowing through and around my precious tendons as well.

This doesn't mean I'm *saving* energy. It means I'm keeping my legs warm. If I cranked the heat in my apartment and opened all the windows on a winter day, the apartment may stay semi-warm (well the radiators for sure) but it's not an efficient way of heating things. Kind of like Balm, core temps, and cooler weather. Not efficient but warm until you run out of energy.

Since I prefer not to have constrictive clothing on my legs, I use heat rub to force blood into my legs. I'm pretty sure I run out of energy quicker but it's worth it to me, at least in my perception.

The thick Vaseline like stuff also keeps water off your skin - it literally feels like you put Vaseline on your legs. So if it's raining, it helps too.

Finally, this stuff is MUCH stronger than any "normal" heat rub. Ben Gay, Icy Hot, and all those feel like toothpaste compared to Atomic Balm. That stuff just makes me cold. It feels like wet chalk dust.

As far as knee warmers go, since knee warmers don't help protect your core like thick knickers do, I rarely use knee warmers. In SoCal, when I was there in Feb, I mainly rode in knickers or in shorts. And yes I rode some long rides in shorts, my legs slathered in Balm.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again Aki!

Anonymous said...

I think you're downplaying what can happen at an airport.

"Yeah I packed my atomic balm."
"Hey wait, I said atomic balm, not atomic bomb! No really, let me go, I don't need to be taken to be questioned! I've already been doing that since I started shaving my legs!!!"


Emlynevermore said...

I know this post is 4 1/2 years old but I've only just seen it and autumn in New York makes this suddenly apropos.

Your graphic description--and erm, pictures--makes me wonder, just how safe is this stuff? Something that makes you feel warmer without actually making you warmer sounds dangerous. I mean, artificially bypassing your body's innate feedback systems can't be good, right? Tom Simpson springs to mind.

During your years of use, have you had any...unusual side effects? Larger breasts and/or guads? Perhaps a semi-perma-tan? And have you been desensitized to the effects? Or does the old adage hold true, i.e. "It never burns less painful, you only go faster?"

Anyway, this stuff sounds too bonkers NOT to order a tub and experiment with. I hope a 5 lb jar will be enough...

Oh, and I love this blog. Thanks for your writeups over the years.

Aki said...

Heh thanks for the feedback.

The turpentine in the stuff, that was worrying, especially since the print on the outside of the tub basically dissolved over time.

I did buy the hot stuff thinking "more is better" but it's so hot it's painful. The football team prank from Revenge of the Nerds comes to mind. I used it maybe 3x and haven't used it since. I can't figure out how to "dilute" it. Medium is the best.

The one bad thing is if it's wet out. Then the Balm is like a conduit for heat escaping your body. Up to that moment it's great.

I will admit my legs look more orange after. And the heat effects last a few hours, whether you want them to or not.

Have fun with the stuff and report back your findings.